Barring a last minute compromise with bilingual education advocates, state Senator Guy Glodis this week plans to file paperwork for a ballot initiative that would dismantle the state’s system of teaching its limited-English students.

The proposal would replace bilingual education – in which children with a limited grasp of English are taught for several years in their native tongues as well as English – with one year of intensive English-immersion classes. The initiative, which still has a number of procedural hurdles to clear before it can appear on the ballot, is modeled on measures that have passed overwhelmingly in California and Arizona.

But those measures had the financial backing of Ron Unz, a Silicon Valley millionaire who has crisscrossed the country crusading against bilingual education. In an interview yesterday, Unz said he won’t finance Glodis’s ballot initiative unless people affected by bilingual education – such as immigrants, minority groups, or educators – lead it.

“I’m really very hopeful something can be done at the 11th hour, but nothing yet is certain,” Unz said. “I certainly in no way have given the slightest hint of being willing to finance or support a possibly ill-advised effort by someone who is a politician rather than Latino, an immigrant, or an educator.”

Glodis said he is working on finding that sort of support.

About 5 percent of Massachusetts’ 976,000 public school students are
“limited English proficient.” Critics argue that bilingual education hurts those students by coddling them. They note that the students’ failure rates on the MCAS exam are two to three three times higher than those of English-speaking students. But bilingual-education backers say students do better when they are eased into English, and say the low test scores stem from socioeconomic factors that have little to do with language.

Glodis, a Worcester Democrat, said he will submit a petition for the initiative to Attorney General Thomas F. Reilly’s office early this week,
the first step in placing it on the November 2002 ballot. The deadline is Wednesday, and at least 10 registered voters must endorse the petition by then.

If the initiative is ruled constitutional, backers can begin gathering the 57,100 signatures needed to place it on the ballot.

Still, a statewide vote could be averted. In search of a compromise, Glodis has been meeting with state Representative Antonio Cabral, a New Bedford Democrat who has filed a bill that would preserve bilingual education but tighten some testing guidelines and limit students to three years of bilingual classes. The two legislators will meet over the next couple of days to try to hammer out a compromise before Wednesday’s deadline, Glodis said.

“My deepest hope is that we don’t have to go to a referendum, but some of the advocates have to be willing to fairly negotiate and compromise,” Glodis said. “It’s not a one-way compromise where they can get everything.”

Cabral said he and Glodis agree on requiring bilingual teachers to be certified and the three-year cap on bilingual classes. But after three years, Glodis wants students to go directly to classes taught in English,
while Cabral’s bill would let schools write a transitional “education plan”
that would ease the students into English. Cabral’s bill also allows
“two-way immersion” programs in which all students learn in two languages.

Cabral said his differences with Glodis are “minor,” and he is confident they can be resolved.

“With a little bit more time and some more discussion, I think we can bridge these outstanding differences,” Cabral said.

Anand Vaishnav can be reached by e-mail at

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